By Leah Call
Wisconsin’s industrial hemp program had a bountiful first year and its second year looks just as promising.
Wisconsin began an Industrial Hemp Research Pilot Program in 2018 to study the growth and marketing of industrial hemp as authorized by the 2014 federal farm bill. In its first year, the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) issued 247 permits for 135 growers on 1,850 field acres and 22 greenhouse acres. The state issued 100 hemp processing permits, 80 of which went to registered growers.
Interest in the 2019 pilot is ramping up as the March 1 permitting deadline approaches. At the beginning of February, DATCP had received more than 420 applications.
“It is hard to predict what will happen in the last month of licensing; however it appears we will at least triple the number of licenses for both growers and processors,” said Jennifer Heaton-Amrhein, policy analyst at the AgChem Management & Plant Industry Bureaus/Division of Agricultural for DATCP.
Based on research pilots in other states, DATCP anticipated participation from non-farm entities such as the Milwaukee Domes and nurseries throughout the state.
“We do expect additional participation from a wide range of growers and processors, including traditional farmers, nurseries and greenhouses, as well as others completely new to the sector,” added Heaton-Amrhein.
“Sixty-six of the growers [in 2018] planted some form of CBD…the rest was grain and fiber,” said Philip Scott, president of the Wisconsin Hemp Farmers & Manufacturers Association.
Growing CBD hemp is more labor intensive than fiber and grain hemp.
“CBD flowers are a lot of work – as much work as tobacco as a comparison, maybe more,” Scott said. “If you are going to get into the CBD flower business, you better be prepared to get off the tractor and get dirty. With grain and fiber, you can put them in the field and not really touch them at all and they should be successful.”
Scott said mold and flooding had the biggest impact on crop success in 2018. “I can’t give the name of the mold – the testing is not back yet – but it is the mold that attaches to soybean crops,” he explained.
The mold affected both CBD and fiber/grain hemp, typically within a few weeks of harvest. Scott advised growers to avoid planting hemp near soybean fields or in ground where soybeans have been recently grown.
Another challenge is finding adequate space for drying the crop.
“A lot of people want to hang it in barns or convert tobacco sheds, but we found that every time it rained when hanging in barns or tobacco sheds, it would rehydrate,” Scott said. “After the third or fourth rehydration, it would have to be sent for testing for molds.”
CBD hemp should be dried in an enclosed facility or warehouse equipped with fans or dehumidifiers, Scott said. Grain hemp is easier to harvest and dry.
“With hemp grain, we had one farmer combine the whole field and send it to a dryer, like you do with corn and soy,” he said.
A well-maintained CBD crop means maximum profits for the grower. “If you actually took care of your crop and babied it, you can go from $6,000 per acre to $40,000 per acre,” Scott said. “There is that big of a difference.”
Market rate for fiber biomass is $1,300 per ton. That increases if a processor runs it through a decorticator, which separates fiber and stalk.
“Now that fiber is looking closer to $10,000 to $13,000/ton and your wood stalk will go from $3,300 to $7,500/ton,” Scott said.
Registration and research
Hemp growers must agree to a background check and are required to purchase a license depending on the number of acres they plan to grow. Growers must also pay an annual registration fee and are required to conduct sampling.
As part of the pilot research program, growers are required to keep records of seed source and variety as well as information on soils, precipitation, growing degree days, nutrients, insects, diseases, weeds, planting and harvesting timing, equipment, techniques, crop rotations, storage and markets.
“We will be reviewing the reports in the next couple of months and publishing an annual report,” said Heaton-Amrhein. “We hope to learn whatever we can about growing hemp in Wisconsin, so we can share that information with other interested growers in an effort to help the industry develop and thrive.”
Minnesota hemp update
Wisconsin isn’t the only Midwest state with a pilot hemp program in place. The Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA) launched its Industrial Hemp Pilot Program in 2016.
According to MDA’s 2018 report released in January 2019, there were 43 licensed hemp growers, which is up 10 from 2017. Approved acreage in 2018 decreased by 1,000, with planted acreage down 500 acres from the previous year, largely because of limited markets and processors.
The MDA report noted 709 acres were planted outside and 54,618-square-feet of indoor space was used to grow hemp.